Illustrator Beginner’s Series 3: Tracing with the Pen Tool

This is the third part in my Adobe Illustrator Beginner’s series. This tutorial is about tracing over your pencil sketches with the Pen tool. The first part of this series was about getting your sketches into Illustrator and the second part was about using the Pen tool. If you missed the either part, you can check out the first one here and the second one here.

Here’s my placed sketch.

Select the Pen Tool and the color you want to draw in from the Toolbar. I like to draw in a bright color like red, so I can see the lines over my sketch.

Start by clicking on the bottom of the leaf in the middle. Next, click on the top in the middle. Hold down the Shift key when you click. Holding down the Shift key will make your line straight.

Now, you want your line to curve to follow the shape of the leaf. Make your next point, at the end of the curve, but don’t release the mouse button. Instead, slowly move your mouse down. Notice it is making a curved line. When you get the curve correct release the mouse button.

After making a curved line, you’ll want to click off your line to avoid the recipricol curve like in the last tutorial. Hold down the Command/Control key to get either the Direct Select or the Selection tool and click off the line on the empty artboard. Then, release the Command/Control key and continue drawing with the Pen tool.

Now you want to continue drawing with your line. With the Pen tool selected, hover your mouse over the end of the line. A small black slash mark will appear next to pen tool tip (or the part where your pen meets paper). This means that you are over the end point of the line. Click on it. If you miss just undo. Go to Edit > Undo or Command/Control Z.

Next, click on the next point you want your line to continue to. This line is a straight line, so you won’t have to click off of it to draw the next one.

Continue following the contour of the leaf by making the line curve and go straight. When you come to the end, you’ll want close the shape. If you remember from the last lesson, to close a shape hover over the first point you made. You’ll know you’re over the point when a small circle appears next to your pen tool, then click on the point. Your line or path is closed.

You have just drawn half the leaf shape. The next lesson will show you how to flip the shape and join it, so you have a symmetrical object.

This post was written on Content copyright 2009 Cory Thoman.

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  1. Jeremy

    Wow this is very useful. Keep making tutorials with the pen tool they are helping me with my designs. I am just trying to figure out how to do all those twist and turns which are so difficult to do.


  2. 09/10/02

    Great job.

    Tried to control click on point like with photoshop, but won’t work in illustrator, had to do your way 😛

  3. Anne

    Hi. This is so great. It is what I have been looking for all the time. You really show the real details on how to do things and it is easy to follow. I have bookmarked your site and will keep reading your tutorials. This is really helpful. Thanks.

  4. 09/11/10

    I am new to Illustrator, but a veteran with Photoshop. I appreciate these beginner tutorials, it seems all of the things I taught myself or assumed were not the most efficient way to do things.

    Thanks again!

  5. Miranda

    Now I know what I was doing wrong when my curves were turning out funky! The reciprocal curve can be somewhat annoying… very helpful tutorials here.

  6. K.N.Malathi

    I am from India and an absolute beginner to illustrator . I found your tutorial very simple to understand and use. I find that video tutorial ( at are sometimes difficult to follow due to accent of the speaker and the speed at which the tutorial. I somehow prefer reading to watching videos ( or listening to audio-books) to learn anything since it allows me the freedom to pause and mull over the learning points , go back and reread if I have not understood … in short work / read at my pace.

    I find your tutorials extremely helpful. I don’t have a website , but I have a blog ( started just last month) , where I use drawings ( mostly geometrical ones) made in illustrator in my blog

    Do you have any tutorials that teaches how to use the illustrator to make pages for the book I plan to publish on recreational mathematics?

    Thank you one again for the fantastic tutorials.


  7. richard

    could you please tell me why when I draw the lines using the pen do I loose whatever is inside the picture. I have got stroke selected.. I tried following your exact steps with the same image you used but when I finished closing the shape i loose whatever is insed the shape

  8. Cory

    Not sure Richard. If you have a fill on it as well as the stroke, you may just be covering up whatever is underneath. Just remove the fill or you can send the shape to the back to what is underneath (unless it is on another layer). Object > Arrange > Send to Back.

  9. ed

    yeah, I agree with cory, by the way thanks for the info. 🙂

  10. 12/02/08

    Your location is valueble for me. Thanks!?-

  11. Joanna

    I’ve got it, I’ve actually got it… woo hoo! I have avoided the pen tool in other software like the plague in the past and when I have actually tried to play with it I just didn’t get it. I downloaded a trial of illustrator yesterday, found you tutorial today and now I have half a leaf! Thank you very much for such great tutorials!

  12. Fernindad

    I like do this stuff. I new to the united statis and i like do this illistrater stuff
    muchos graditude

  13. Nairoby

    Thank you sooo much! 🙂

  14. Karen

    hi, your tutorials are excellent thankyou. I am working my way through them as a beginner to Illustrator.
    One question, in this tutorial no.3 are you saying that when you want to do a straight line adjoining a curved one, then you should ‘click off’ your drawing before continuing. But when you are doing curves next to curves you can continue by clicking on the next spot?

  15. Cory


    Yes, I click on the canvas somewhere with the selection tool. You can also just click on the point itself with the pen tool. The purpose of it is you will get different results when you are working with curved lines. You can try a few different experiments to see what happens.

  16. 13/05/16

    thanks so much for the tips- been learning illustrator over the past few weeks and needed to get back to a few of the basics

  17. 13/06/12

    really great stuff here, i liked this because i use the pen tool a lot and had a hrd time tracing things, thanks so much

  18. 13/06/12

    thanks so much for the outstanding instructions here, i really needed it

  19. sami

    thats really helpful for beginner. Now I’m so happy to see my working sheet that i make myself with the help of this valuable tutorial. Thanks again.